Real Steel (Dreamworks, 2011)
My childhood was fulfilled when my parents got me a set of Rock-em-Sock-em Robots for Christmas. I think I was eighteen. (Definitely a late adopter.) So you can imagine how eager I was to see Real Steel, a Hugh Jackman father-son movie about fighting robots.
So much has changed since my eighteenth Christmas. Now robots have shadowing programs and remote controls, and so on. But they still look the same, with metallic, vaguely human bodies made of plastic and steel. Oh, I forgot, this is just a movie.
In this big-budget picture, Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a vagabond traveling robot remote control fighter. The movie is set somewhere in time after 2016, but you’d hardly know it from the reflective opening scenes. Here’s Charlie in his truck, visiting carnivals and other back road venues, putting his current robot up against whoever wants to fight for money.
In the midst of a losing fight, along comes the news that his son’s mother has died. Charlie hasn’t seen the son, Max, since forever. Now Max is eleven and about to be adopted by his aunt. In a shady deal with Max’s uncle, Charlie agrees to baby sit the boy for fifty thou while Aunt and Uncle take a quick trip to Europe. His plan is to ditch Max with an old girlfriend while he hits the road again with a new used robot.
Do you notice something here? There’s an overabundance of human plot structure in which the technology is sort of assumed. In this near future, robots are as ubiquitous (everyday) as iphones. Sure, they’re too expensive to use as anything but money makers, but no one gives a sophisticated fighting robot a second glance, unless they’re a fan of the World Robot Wrestling league.
It turns out that little Max is a huge fan of robot wrestling, and insists on accompanying Charlie on the road. The rest of the movie plays out as you would expect. Along the way there are some very interesting and well played characters, including Charlie’s old flame Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), who runs a gym. In fact, her father taught Charlie everything he knows about boxing. The interaction between Bailey and Charlie, at least in the beginning of the movie, is engaging and well played.
In my opinion, the first half of the movie is the best, when we’re being set up for the fighting action that follows. The second half is very long on theatrics and close-ups of Charlie, Bailey and Max as their robot fights its way to a national robot championship. Oh, the action is great, but Max, played by Dakota Goyo, reminds me way too much of little Anakin Skywalker and Ricky “Champ” Schroeder combined. If you’re into cute, you’ll get plenty of it in Real Steel.
At the same time, the movie rocks on its own level. Having watched some of the robot revolution play out in Japan (where robot teams routinely play soccer with each other) I was pleased to see the yeah-so-can-your-robot-fight attitude that everyone had about the machines in Real Steel.
And parents be warned, there’s a lot of fighting in PG-13 Real Steel, not all of it robot versus robot. Charlie gets the crap beaten out of him by one villain he owes money to, while Max is forced to watch. This is definitely a testosterone kind of family movie, and small children should probably skip it. But thankfully, its all set in the future. Moms shouldn’t have to worry about their kids wanting to run off and fight robots for a living. A least not this year.